Eva Marloes

Behind the Curtains, Part 1: Robinson, The Other Island By Eva Marloes

Robinson, the latest creation of director Mathilde Lopez and John Norton, artistic director of the company Give It A Name, is taking shape in the Stiwdio, the large room part of Chapter Arts Centre. Robinson is as much a sound exploration as a textual engagement with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Michel Tournier’s Friday. Defoe’s book, published 300 years ago, is a dreary propaganda for colonial exploitation, while in Friday, or The Other Island, written in 1967, Tournier explores the relationship between our ideas of civilisation and of noble savagery. In the hands of Mathilde Lopez, Robinson is a parable of solitude, which is conveyed through an innovative use of sound, designed by John Norton.

Director Mathilde Lopez

I sit down and I am given headphones. Every member of the audience will wear them. I hear the waves of the sea, the tweeting of birds, Caribbean music, and Bianca, played by Luciana Chapman, reading, but not in both ears. The headphones and mics are binaural, to recreate how our ears perceive sound. I hear Bianca speaking softly in my ear as if I were reading a book. I hear birds tweeting and a mosquito buzzing around my left ear evoking a tropical island.

The stage, for the time being, consists of three tables stuck together lengthways cutting the space in two. This will later be replaced by pallets filled with various materials, including cans and empty plastic bottles. The actors perform on the tables and around them. They’re still finding their feet. The text is not finalised, the action still to be worked out, and the cues set. The play is in becoming. I’m witnessing the creative process, which, under Mathilde’s direction, is playful and cooperative. Mathilde often laughs. She laughs at what the actors come up with, she laughs at herself. She makes suggestions, gives indications; she never raises her voice, never criticises. It’s always ‘shall we do this,’ ‘can you do this,’ and ‘thank you.’

A big black box arrives. There’s dough inside. Mathilde has fun taking it out of the box and playing with it. Her happy and excited face is like that of a child. Luciana punches the dough while John, who plays Robinson and is an experienced bread-maker, kneads it. John wants to throw the dough to Luciana. She’s afraid of missing. She doesn’t. Mathilde encourages the game. She thinks that Luciana should drop the big blob of dough on the table. Luciana has put the big blob of dough on her face. Mathilde laughs and says, ‘It’s a bit Elephant Man.’ Turning to sound tech Jack, Mathilde asks for a recording of John as Robinson saying, ‘Can you put the soporific John?’ I stand next to them. It’s intimate and warm in a very cold room. I listen to Luciana reciting her piece. Mathilde, John, and I listen while playing with the dough. It’s like children playing quietly while their mother tells them a story.

This story is one of solitude, colonialism, capitalist ethic, and freedom. It begins with Mathilde’s love for Tournier’s work. In Friday, Robinson has sex with the island and even with the child of the island. Mathilde has focussed on solitude and the antidote to solitude: reading. ‘When you read, it has your voice.’ In Robinson, Bianca reads the book Robinson Crusoe directly into our ears, as if it were our voice. The solitude of reading a book is ‘not the solitude of watching telly,’ she tells me. In reading we use our voice, our rhythm, we are part of the book. ‘Your voice becoming a book is an enormous, physical exercise in compassion,’ says Mathilde. By saying the words in the book, we get closer to the characters and understand them. ‘It’s much harder for actors to remain oblivious to the suffering of the character they’re playing because they’re saying those words.’ Reading is thus a way to open ourselves to others, practise empathy, and participate in the humanity of others.

Robinson is alone on the island for 28 years. We participate in his solitude, but we’re also horrified by his misogyny, racism, and colonial attitude to nature.  The novel Robinson Crusoe is a ‘twisted inheritance,’ tells me Mathilde. Facing up to the slavery and colonialism of the novel, makes you deal with where we’re from. In Mathilde’s play, the passages on slavery are not sanitised. They are kept and dealt with. Bianca gets angry and plays Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon, which in 1970 denounced American social inequality and racism and that is still relevant.

Today, in a world of extreme inequality, where the relentless pursuit of economic growth is threatening our planet’s very existence, Robinson’s obsessive work on the island mirrors our belief of constant activity as a value. ‘It’s morally right to do a lot,’ says Mathilde. The myth of self-reliance of Robinson is but a fig-leaf for exploitation of the land and of the labour of others. Robinson ‘has to do all the time because he’s terrified of living.’ In Tournier’s Friday, when Friday appears and makes all his goods explode, there is a shift in Robinson. He cannot go on in the same way. He no longer imposes ‘civilisation’ on the island.

Robinson’s ‘civilisation’ rests on slavery and the unsustainable use of nature. He looks at the world and the island as a good, as Mathilde explains, just as when we look at one another in terms of what we can get out. ‘Nothing has a value in itself. Everything is a means. The island is only a means for him throughout … Freedom starts at the point when things stop being simply means.’ Nature and human beings are value in themselves. At a time when we might feel discouraged at world governments’ inaction in tackling climate change and inequality, it might be tempting to despair. As Robinson reminds us, despair is a sin. Mathilde says, ‘bad fortune happens, but your own reaction to it is your responsibility.’

Review Louder is not Always Clearer, Jonny Cotsen by Eva Marloes

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Jonny Cotsen is sat at a desk with a laptop open in front of him. Music is on, he walks to the mic at the centre of the stage, he nods to the beat, opens his mouth, nothing comes out. Jonny is deaf and the hearing world has barriers to him. In his show, Louder Is Not Always Clearer, he takes us into his world. Jonny’s world is a world of rhythm and movement. He owns the stage with his humorous and dynamic presence.  He seduces the audience with movement, sound, and words, some said, some written. Louder Is Not Always Clearer makes you experience with your body the difficulty of communicating across the deaf and hearing world.

Jonny grew up in a family that sought to minimise his disability. His parents always referred to his disability in terms of being ‘of partial hearing,’ never ‘deaf.’ Jonny’s show is a journey to own the term ‘deaf’ and to demystify it for all of us. As Jonny shows us his efforts at learning the sounds to be used in words, like ‘pa,’ ‘oo/ee,’ ‘th,’ ‘sh,’ ‘th,’ it feels like Ionesco’s La Cantatrice Chauve. Paradoxically, the slightly absurdist style of the first part of the show communicates effectively the impossibility of communication. We drown in sounds. We are overwhelmed.

Jonny lets us into his world with pathos and humour. He gives us funny ‘impressions’ of hearing people being condescending, patronising, and impatient. The show succeeds at making the audience experience the frustration, awkwardness, and loneliness of not being able to hear in a world of hearing people. I would have liked Jonny to take it further and explore the complexity of human communication, what is taken for granted in the words we use, our miscommunication, and bad communication. In the age of texts and emojis, of social media, and of multilingual people, deafness can shine a light on how we connect and disconnect with each other.

Review Robinson: The Other Island, ‘Give It a Name’ by Eva Marloes

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

In the 300th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Robinson. The Other Island offers a multilayered way to rethink the book. Director Mathilde Lopez and John Norton, Artistic Director of the company Give it a Name, blend Robinson Crusoe with Michel Tournier’s Friday and convey a somber mood through an original sound experience, devised by John Norton and Jack Drewry. The play unfolds in our heads as we listen to the sounds, words, and music with headphones. Robinson is more than a play; it is a shared and intimate experience of reading and reflecting on solitude.

The Robinson Crusoe of Robinson. The Other Island (played by John Rowley) suffers a maddening loneliness alone on the Island, but lonely is also Bianca (played by Luciana Chapman), who reads Defoe’s and Tournier’s books. Bianca is alone in her flat, eating microwavable meals, trying to work out how to fix a leaking tap, hiding from her father, and yet seeking a connection with him. As Bianca reads about Robinson in our ears, it is also us who experience loneliness. Isolated from other members of the audience by headphones, yet establishing a connection with them as we watch and listen together. The drama is at times broken by the lively and funny interventions of book clubbers talking about Robinson Crusoe into the mics of Robinson and of Bianca. It is effective, although on opening night there were perhaps too many voices, rather than the one or two during rehearsals, thus losing intensity.

Robinson Crusoe’s misogyny, racism, and colonialism are not brushed under the carpet but take centre stage. They are tackled with humour, puzzlement, and even violence. At the words ‘I bought me a negro slave,’ Bianca gets angry in her anger she becomes Robinson. She orders to fetch the Governor’s coat (Robinson’s), smokes, and reads the horrendous passage where ‘negroes’ are things, tools of work, lesser humans. The colonial racism is juxtaposed with Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Whitey on the Moon,’

The 1970’s that contrasts the power of white man colonising the moon while black people have no money to pay the doctor’s bill. Bianca takes up a plank of wood and attacks Robinson breaking into the world she is reading about.

Bianca and Robinson interact only slightly. It is a dance of two lonely people seeking connection and forgiveness. Robinson is shown in his humanity: lonely, resourceful, exploring and observing the island, fighting against his destiny, and begging for forgiveness. A soft music creates intimacy. Bianca and Robinson sit together playing with dough like children and like children the audience listens to the voice reading the book. In the week when Jean Vanier, the founder of the community L’Arche, died, Robinson reminds me of his teaching on loneliness:

‘Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart. … It is because we belong with others and see them as brothers and sisters in humanity that we learn not only to accept them as they are, with different gifts and capacities, but to see each one as a person with a vulnerable heart. We learn to forgive those who hurt us or reject us; we ask forgiveness of those we have hurt.’

Robinson is a meditative piece that stimulates thought and nudges us slightly towards compassion.

The production plays at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff and then tours.

Review Peeling, Taking Flight Theatre Company by Eva Marloes

Production photos by Janire Najera and Raquel Garcia at 4Pi Productions
5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

As members of the audience take their seats, two actresses are on stage dressed in a gown which looks like a robe à la Polonaise straight from the court of Versailles, embroidered for today’s ‘sex positive’ era with vulva-shaped pockets. A third actress, the ‘deaf one,’ as she’s labelled, joins the other two late as she didn’t hear the Tannoy calling performers to the stage. Alpha, Coral, and Beaty are three disabled actresses cast as part of the Chorus in a production of Euripides’ The Trojan Women. They watch the play from afar, away from the spotlights, and stuck in enormous gowns. As the Euripides’ play unfolds in all its horror, Alpha, Coral, and Beaty squabble, make fun of each other and of each other’s disability, and thus demolish the sanitised image of disabled people as helpless victims deserving of pity and not much else, fruit of the condescending benevolence of our society.

The sparkling and irreverent dialogue gives way to the harrowing tones of rejection, loss, and death, experienced by the actresses. The violence of The Trojan Women, which culminates in women killing their own children so that they would not be killed by the invading army, is woven together with the actresses’ own stories, as one contemplates abortion, another tells about hers, and the third recounts having to give away her baby and being sterilised because disabled women cannot be ‘mothers.’ Peeling is brutally funny and harsh. Kaite O’Reilly’s beautiful writing is interpreted with verve and pathos by Bea Webster, Ruth Curtis, and Steph Lacey, supported by the subtle humour of Erin Hutching as the BSL Performer/Stage Manager. They all entertain, grip, and move the audience.

Peeling affirms the agency and visibility of disabled women, but it goes much deeper than that. Peeling is about truth. It tears down the veil of respectability of our everyday language and conduct, which strip disabled people of agency. It unmasks the condescension and disregard that make disabled people second-class citizens. It reveals how mothers prepare their daughters to play the role of woman as whore or virgin. You need to ‘beguile,’ ‘keep smiling,’ ‘put it out there,’ or avoid at all cost being ‘damaged goods,’ ‘second-hand,’ thus denouncing how women’s body is still constructed in terms of male pleasure. Above all, it demolishes the sugary lie of ‘it will all be fine.’

In a Pirandellian fashion, the play peels away the layers of untruths that we tell each other about ourselves and others. For those who might think ourselves righteous and compassionate, Peeling holds a mirror to show that such attitude makes disabled people and women the Other, who must adhere to social stereotypes and expectations to be legitimised in their existence. The masks of social conventions that comfort the bien pensants and imprison the Other fall faced with the raw life of pain, death, and loss. Like in Pirandello, such endeavour is here accomplished through the layers of performance of the theatrical masks. Alpha, Beaty, and Coral perform as part of the Chorus, but also in their mordant exchanges and their mocking audio-descriptions.

Truth emerges from the acute observation of our own performance that shapes and reshapes social norms, roles, and expectations. None clearer than in the moment when the actresses watch the audience and the audience watches them. The veil of lies is torn. We are amused, intrigued, and uncomfortable at looking at someone looking straight at us. They are no longer the Other. They affirm their own self. As they put it, ‘Handicaps are a health and safety risk,’ we risk our comforting narratives that keep us ‘healthy and safe’ by hiding sorrow, pain, and difference, but also the truth of the human condition. Peeling lets us drop our masks and glimpse truth.

Review Awakening, National Dance Company Wales By Eva Marloes

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

It is with trepidation that I venture in writing a review of my first ever contemporary dance show, Awakening, a three-piece programme produced by National Dance Company Wales. All the three dance pieces have a distinctive style, show a desire to engage with ideas, and are executed skilfully. Watching the show was an interesting experience that left me intrigued, puzzled, and annoyed. I was intrigued by the attempt at using movement to convey visual effects, puzzled by the overall concern for concept, too often fuzzy, to the detriment of emotion, and annoyed at the diminished role of music, especially in the first two pieces, which but conveys a dystopian atmosphere, instead of being integral part of the performance.

The first piece, Tundra, begins with a captivating image of a dancer in a cone-shaped costume in a red light and an otherworldly voice. The stage is plunged into the dark and the figure disappears. As the stage is lit again by a white light, a group of dancers in white and blue cone-shaped costumes appear. They move together as a group and glide beautifully across the floor. This is perhaps the most striking part of Tundra, albeit relatively short by comparison with the main part of the piece, which consists of dancers in a colourful costume moving together as one. Their legs and arms touch to form one continuous shape and move on the stage like a snake. The choreographer, Marcos Morau, found inspiration in Russian folk music and dance, yet the cone-dress seemed much closer to the Korean traditional dress, while the main ‘snake-like’ performance reminded me of the Chinese dragon dance. The performance is smooth and elegant but the parts are disjointed and the music fails to convey any emotion.

Tundra is followed by Afterimage by choreographer Fernando Melo. The piece plays cleverly with mirrors and light to create the illusion of figures appearing and fading away like ghosts. The illusion effects are inspired by the technique of Henry Dircks and John Henry Pepper, which used light and glass to create ghostly appearances. In Afterimage, the dancers dissolve, often into one another, through multiple reflections. The piece is an exploration of different perspectives that never meet. It is well crafted, interesting, and performed gracefully; yet it feels too concerned with a visual effect conveyed through movement rather than dance. Like Tundra, it is too conceptual to convey emotion, and not aided by the dystopian music.

After the second interval, two women came and sat next to me. They could not make anything out of the first two pieces, ‘too symbolical,’ one said; yet they were enthusiastic about the third piece, the Revellers’ Mass. It is easy to see why. The Revellers’ Mass has a narrative, elaborate costumes, prominent music, and a tinge of humour. The piece begins with a male voice speaking Georgian and a priest lighting candles on a long flat surface. The sacred is alternated with the profane. The flat surface becomes a table and the sacred atmosphere turns into a wild party. At one point, the dancers at the table are reminiscent of the Last Supper, yet the reference serves little purpose and is a far cry from the biting irony of the Last Supper in Louis Bunuel’s Viridiana. Choreographer Caroline Finn is perhaps overambitious in seeking to capture ‘ritual and etiquette, and ceremony, as well as primal human behaviour.’ The conflation of ritual, etiquette, and ceremony is irksome and the contrast with partying as ‘primal human behaviour’ highly problematic. Revellers’ Mass is nevertheless entertaining and ends humorously with drunken revellers being dragged across the floor to the notes of Edith Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien.

As a novice, Awakening has been an interesting and thought-provoking experience. I acknowledge my preference for emotional engagement when it comes to all art forms; yet the three dance pieces have opened a door to a way of experiencing art that has left me curious notwithstanding the frustration. The show has perhaps succeeded in raising questions, the most important of which might be ‘does art need emotion to be art?’

Review Saethu Cwningod/Shooting Rabbits, PowderHouse by Eva Marloes

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

‘If I Can Shoot Rabbits, I Can Shoot Fascists,’ is the strapline of the first play by PowderHouse in association with the Sherman Theatre and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru. It comes from the Manic Street Preachers’ song ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next,’

This in turn is inspired by the involvement of Welsh volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. The play Shooting Rabbits seeks to evoke the experience of a young Welshman travelling to Spain to fight against fascism in the 1930s while seemingly hinting at a similarity between fighting the authoritarian oppressor in Spain and the strife of Irish, Welsh, and Basque nationalism, given a new life by Brexit. Such an unwieldy subject matter could only fail on stage, especially when it is conveyed through a stream of consciousness dramaturgy that leaves the audience confused. Nonetheless the play succeeds in capturing the ambiguity of any proclamation in the name of ‘the people.’ 

Production Images credit Studio Cano

Shooting Rabbits co-directed by Jac Ifan Moore and Chelsey Gillard begins with a Northern Irish actor auditioning for a role in Wales. The casting director asks him to do a ‘more Irish’ accent, meaning one that is from the Republic of Ireland. The director expresses sympathy with the Irish, ‘Solidarity with you,’ ‘Wales stands with you,’ ‘Your people.’ The ‘solidarity’ is borne of the alleged ‘shared struggle’ against the ‘neighbours across the borders.’ The actor, played by Neil McWilliams, launches into a tirade questioning the very premise of ‘the people.’ Who are his people? Republicans, Nationalists, the IRA, Unionists, the DUP? The reduction of the heterogeneous reality of a country to one group betrays not just an ignorant and condescending attitude, but one that delegitimises whoever does not fit the image of the country, a country that is always an ideal, never a complex reality. This is nowhere more evident than in the impassioned and seductive speech of Francisco Franco performed by Alejandra Barcelar Pereira in Spanish. It appeals to the defence of the country and faith in the country, but it is a country that repudiates all those who do not abide by the script.

The appeal to ‘the people’ is a dangerous weapon that is wielded against the very people it professes to protect. ‘The people’ erases people as a heterogeneous empirical reality, disregards and delegitimises theirs diversity, their different perspectives, lifestyles, values, customs, and, above all, their overlapping identities. This is what the European Union aims to promote: unity in diversity. That is why Catalan, Basque, Scottish, and Welsh nationalist movements, to name a few, are often supportive of the EU. Thus, the EU does indeed undermine the nation state, conceived as a unitary and homogeneous entity, by giving voice to communities inside nations and across them. Today, the EU is embattled, but the crisis is not a battle between fascism and liberal democracy; rather it is more the result of established structures and politics being out of step with contemporary society and economics. That is why it is risky to draw any comparisons between today’s crises and the 1930s, as Shooting Rabbits seeks to do.

Shooting Rabbits is at its best when it exposes the naivete of the romantic ideal of fighting against fascism and of claiming to represent a ‘people.’ The young Welshman in 1930s Spain does not know what to do and begs to be told what to do. In front of the horror of the civil war, the volunteers of the International Brigade repeat that it was not meant to be this way. The play makes fun of political divisions and polarisations that create enemies. It is evocative and exhilarating. It is acted beautifully in Spanish, Basque, Welsh, and English by Alejandra Barcelar Pereira, Gwenllian Higginson, and Neil McWilliams, and it is supported by the music performed live by Sam Humphreys. It is also a missed opportunity. Shooting Rabbits flounders due to a superficial historical analysis and a stream of consciousness structure that disorients the spectator instead of bringing clarity.

Review – Les Misérables, August 012 By Eva Marloes

All images credit Eva Marloes

Please note images featured in this review are from the rehearsal process

This fun and moving adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables by Cardiff-based theatre company August012 juxtaposes the battle of Waterloo and the Brexit Referendum. The intention behind the historical and literary parallel is to insert our daily lives into a wider perspective, to juggle the big and the small, the significant and insignificant, the past and the present. Les Mis, not the musical (thank God not the musical!), is a whirlpool of sound, words, and movement, expressing a sense of loss and futility, tempered by a feeling of compassion.

The scene begins with an account of the battle of Waterloo, cut by the recollections of Brits on holiday in Greece before the Referendum, and by the disbelief and shock at the result on the night. Away from formulaic narrative structure, Les Mis embraces a multilayered performance where music, words, and movement intersect and converge all around us. The music is spell-binding and plays a prominent role in guiding the audience into this tragi-comedy. It is a seductive and immersive experience that stirs the senses and brings awareness of the wider significance of Brexit.

The smell of grass, the thumping on the ground of the soldiers’ feet, broken by holiday-makers’ easy-going chatter and banter to the tune of Brazilian music in the sun-kissed beaches of Greece make the play at once seductive and moving. The charged atmosphere evoked by the battle is countered by the fun and ordinariness of the Referendum night. The parallel is sustained by local references to Cardiff’s roads and neighbourhoods. Napoleon is in Grangetown. Brussels is Ponty. Yet, the playfulness of Les Mis accentuates the brutality of Waterloo conveying a sense of awe, of something bigger than ourselves.

This heartfelt, engaging, ironic and exciting production articulates the current confusion, exhaustion, and ridiculousness of the aftermath of the Referendum. We don’t know what is going on. Les Mis has no comforting thesis, no tidy narrative, no solution, but a deliberate intention to throw off course.

At a time when over a million people have marched for a referendum on the deal, nearly six millions have signed a petition to revoke art.50, and when Parliament has rejected May’s deal and any other alternative, Les Mis captures the never-ending saga, the incomprehensible going around in circles, and the complexity of the present situation. Brexit has severe repercussions for peace in Northern Ireland, for EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU, for Europe, and for Britain; yet its significance is drowned out in the daily drama deprived of substance. In all this, Les Mis wants its audience to wake up to the historical significance of our daily lives.

The play includes Nicola Sturgeon’s address to European nationals living in Scotland. In the endless noise produced by politicians on Brexit, European nationals in Britain are often forgotten and, at times, dismissed as ‘bargaining chips.’ Director Mathilde Lopez is a French-Spanish North African, who has lived and worked in Britain for 20 years and has a family with British composer/dj John Norton. Matteo Marfoglia, who choreographs the dancers, is an Italian national who has worked in the Netherlands and has been living in Wales for the past six years. For both Mathilde and Matteo the result of the Referendum brought the pain of exclusion. All of a sudden, their identity, status, and very presence in Britain were questioned.

Les Mis gives a voice to that sense of disorienting loss Europeans felt. There is no anger, no preaching, no pedantic history lecture. The political and philosophical rhetoric about the EU at the end is perhaps not as punchy and inspirational as it could have been, but it is genuine and moving. It gives voice to those in Britain who feel European and part of Europe and have been dismissed by mainstream media and politics not just for the past three years, but for decades. What is missing are perhaps the voices of  British politicians and thinkers who have dreamed of Europe, like John Stuart Mill, who joined Victor Hugo at the Congress of the League of Peace and Freedom in Geneva in 1867, where peace required a United States of Europe. I personally would have liked the inclusion of Hugos’ dream of a united Europe at the Peace Congress in Paris, in 1849.

‘A day will come when your arms will fall even from your hands! A day will come when war will seem as absurd and impossible between Paris and London, between Petersburg and Berlin, between Vienna and Turin, as it would be impossible and would seem absurd today between Rouen and Amiens, between Boston and Philadelphia. … A day will come when the only fields of battle will be markets opening up to trade and minds opening up to ideas. A day will come when the bullets and the bombs will be replaced by votes, by the universal suffrage of the peoples, by the venerable arbitration of a great sovereign senate’ 

Les Mis speaks of the hurt of those of us who feel deprived of Europe. Europe is no longer a dream, but a reality. There is an acceptance of defeat without despair, a search for strength in love, not distance. Les Mis appeals to faith, hope, and love. In opposition to the outside political message of exercising control and erecting borders, Les Mis, fruit of artists with diverse cultural backgrounds and political stances, celebrates friendship across divides. It calls on all of us to show compassion to one another.

What would Hugo make of this take on his work and, perhaps more crucially, what would he make of his own dream of a United States of Europe? He might be confused and excited to see that a Union of European countries has taken shape. He might feel inspired and hopeful that it is not just a philosophical, political, or religious idea, but a reality, clumsy and complex, but one that is increasingly in people’s hearts. This production of Les Mis, with its exuberant rhythms, poignant words, and passionate movements, lets us hear the heart of Europe beating.

Review – Open Rehearsal, Les Misérables, August 012 By Eva Marloes

Please note this is a review of an open rehearsal which took place at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff.

All images credit Jorge Lizalde

This fun and moving adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables by Cardiff-based theatre company August012 juxtaposes the battle of Waterloo and the Brexit Referendum. The intention behind the historical and literary parallel is to insert our daily lives into a wider perspective, to juggle the big and the small, the significant and insignificant, the past and the present. Les Mis, not the musical (thank God not the musical!), is a whirlpool of sound, words, and movement, from which emerge a sense of loss and futility, an awareness of something different beginning in a Britain still hangovered from the Referendum, and compassion.

The scene begins with an account of the battle of Waterloo, cut by the recollections of Brits on holiday in Greece before the Referendum, and by the disbelief and shock at the result on the night. Away from formulaic narrative structure, Les Mis embraces a multilayered performance where music, words, and movement intersect and converge all around us. The music is spell-binding and plays a prominent role in guiding the audience into this tragi-comedy. It is a seductive and immersive experience that stirs the senses and brings awareness of wider significance.

The smell of grass, the thumping on the ground of the soldiers’ feet, broken by holiday-makers’ easy-going chatter and banter to the tune of Brazilian music in the sun-kissed beaches of Greece make the play at once seductive and moving. The charged atmosphere evoked by the battle is countered by the fun and ordinariness of the Referendum night. The parallel is sustained by local references to Cardiff’s roads and neighbourhoods. Napoleon is in Grangetown. Brussels is Ponty. Yet, the playfulness of Les Mis accentuates the brutality of Waterloo conveying a sense of awe, of something bigger than ourselves.

This heartfelt, engaging, ironic and exciting production articulates the current confusion, exhaustion, and ridiculousness of the aftermath of the Referendum. We don’t know what is going on. There is no neat comforting thesis, no tidy narrative, no solution, but a deliberate intention to throw off course. Les Mis plays with our confusion and our Brexit fatigue.

At a time when over a million people have marched for a referendum on the deal, over five million have signed a petition to revoke Article 50, and when Parliament keeps voting down May’s deal, Les Mis captures the never-ending saga, the incomprehensible going around in circles, and the complexity of the present situation. Brexit has severe repercussions for peace in Northern Ireland, for EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU, for Europe, and for Britain; yet its significance is drowned out in the daily drama deprived of substance. In all this, Les Mis wants its audience to wake up to the historical significance of our daily lives.

The play includes Nicola Sturgeon’s address to European nationals living in Scotland. In the endless noise produced by politicians on Brexit, European nationals in Britain are often forgotten and, at times, dismissed as ‘bargaining chips.’ Director Mathilde Lopez is a French-Spanish North African, who has lived and worked in Britain for 20 years and has a family with British composer John Norton. Matteo Marfoglia, who choreographs the dancers, is an Italian national who has worked in the Netherlands and has been living in Wales for the past six years. For both Mathilde and Matteo the result of the Referendum brought the pain of exclusion. All of a sudden, their identity, status, and very presence in Britain were questioned.

Les Mis gives a voice to that sense of disorienting loss Europeans felt. There is no anger, no preaching, no pedantic history lecture. The political and philosophical rhetoric at the end is perhaps not as punchy and inspirational as it could have been, but it is genuine and moving. There is an acceptance of defeat without despair, a search for strength in love, not distance. Les Mis appeals to faith, hope, and love. In opposition to the outside political message of exercising control and erecting borders, Les Mis, fruit of artists with diverse cultural backgrounds and political stances, celebrates friendship across divides. It calls on all of us to show compassion to one another.

What would Hugo make of this take on his work and, perhaps more crucially, what would he make of his own dream of a United States of Europe? He might be confused and excited to see that a Union of European countries has taken shape. He might feel inspired and hopeful that it is not just a philosophical, political, or religious idea, but a reality, clumsy and complex, but one that is increasingly in people’s hearts. This production of Les Mis, with its exuberant rhythms, poignant words, and passionate movements, lets us hear the heart of Europe beating.

Les Mis can be seen at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff.

Behind the Curtains of Les Misérables By Eva Marloes

Up the ramps of steep metal stairs, in a room in the Loft, outside of the main building of Chaptert Arts Centre, the theatrical company August012 are rehearsing for their unique take on Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. The music begins. It’s a military tune. It’s 1815, the battle of Waterloo. The fighting, the casualties, the hollow victory. Then, at a stroke, it’s 2016, in Cardiff, the night of the EU Referendum. The battle of Waterloo and the battle of Brexit come together through a meeting and clashing of sounds, words, music, and dance making for an immersive sensory experience.

Rehearsal images credit Jorge Lizalde

The tragedy and horror of Waterloo is juxtaposed with the carefree and indulgent pleasure of holiday-makers in 2016 ahead of the Referendum and the comic coming to terms with the result. It is a kind of estrangement that seeks to bring awareness of the historical implications of Brexit through rhythm and fun. All the pieces, the description of the battle, the drums, the music, a man chocking on a Dorito, Farage, and soldier-dancers, come together with perfect timing. The creativity fuelling Les Mis comes from the collaboration of Director Mathilde Lopez, Choreographer Matteo Marfoglia, and Composers John Norton and Branwen Munn, the latter working from West Wales.

The coming together of French-Spanish, Italian, and Welsh talent with diverse national and cultural backgrounds makes gives an extra dimension to the careful multi-layered assembling of sound, words, and movement. It is the collaborative and supportive nature of these relationships that stands out as I watch the rehearsals. There is no hierarchy, no instructions, no neat division of labour, but a coming together to harness the talents and creativity of one another. Mathilde says, ‘We can do that,’ not ‘Can you do that?’ She is not imparting instructions, she listens to others and makes suggestions. The work emerges from this shared effort and fun. They’re working hard but they’re also having fun.

The atmosphere is so relaxed and friendly that I wonder how a comment from me might be received. I comment and I’m struck by Carwyn, one of the actors, turning to me and nodding. It is a listening environment, where each member of the company can make suggestions and is listened to. John Norton, the composer/DJ, is surprised I’m surprised. ‘This is theatre,’ he tells me, ‘If you want control, don’t do it.’ Unpredictable, brittle, never finished, theatre is always in the making. Precision is impossible, flexibility is key.

Mathilde likes the challenge that music and movement present to her as a theatrical director. She needs to limit herself to give space to John and Matteo. Her listening and collaborative frame of mind includes listening to actors and non-actors who participate in the production. When auditioning for the play, Mathilde asked them what they were doing on the night of the Referendum. The piecing together of different perspectives and experiences reinforces the nature of this production of Les Mis where different worlds coexist.

Choreographer Matteo Marfoglia tells me that the idea is to have two worlds side by side in the same space: the world of the actors and the world of the dancers. The two worlds do not interact. The dancers and the actors are on different journeys. The dancers, as soldiers, evoke with their movements and sounds the tragic sense of the historical dimension of both Waterloo and Brexit. Actors and dancers come in and out of the space interweaving the present with the past, connecting and disconnecting history with our daily lives.

Les Mis speaks to our own reality. It is this sense of the real and dance as a way to communicate real life that brought Matteo to Wales. Classically trained, Matteo first moved to Amsterdam and Rotterdam to become a contemporary dancer and, six years ago, he came to Wales to be part of the National Company Wales. He left classical ballet because it did not meet his thirst for something more authentic to human experience. He believes that contemporary dance allows the individual expression of emotions to come to the fore.

Matteo is training to become a ‘Gaga’ dance teacher. Gaga dance has been developed by Israeli dancer and choreographer Ohad Naharin. At its core, Gaga dance is about embodying the inward emotions of the dancer and how they connect with other dancers. The individuality of the dancer is expressed outward flowing into the shared consciousness of the group. ‘We feel the same emotions but we do so differently,’ Matteo explains, ‘We’re all connected through an emotion but this emotion is expressed in one’s unique and individual way.’

The emotional dimension of Les Mis is a pervasive sense of loss and futility contrasted with seductive pleasure and a hangovered awakening to the aftermath of the Referendum. As European nationals, Matteo and Mathilde experienced a deep sense of loss after the Referendum. They felt ‘under attack,’ as Matteo puts it. All of a sudden, they became foreigners, their presence questioned. Mathilde, who has been living in Britain for 20 years, is married to John and has British children who speak Welsh, felt the pain of exclusion, of being told to ‘go back home.’ She never needed to be formally British, she was part of British society, then Brexit struck.

Brexit has shown that being foreign is an identity that stays with you no matter how long you live in your ‘adoptive’ country, no matter of many changes you make, no matter how much you absorb of the local culture. The ‘in-betweeness’ that has characterised Mathilde’s life became problematic with Brexit. Europe allowed overlapping identities that don’t stop at national borders. Europe, for Mathilde, is the wider project of togetherness. It is complicated and Europe often does not live up to the dream. The way the EU functions right now doesn’t work for many countries, she tells me, but they don’t question being part of it. ‘It’s like moaning at your parents,’ Mathilde says, ‘you moan, you don’t kill them.’

The vote brought sadness to Mathilde and also anger. She found that anger was more ‘socially acceptable’ than sadness because it makes one look strong, but she found it tiring. She needed compassion. She plunged into reading classics, such as Steinbeck, Camus, and Hugo. Classics were her way to get her head around what had just happened and avoid a reductive perspective. ‘When you’re angry at the Americans, you read Steinbeck, when you’re angry at Italians, you read Dante,’ Mathilde explains. Literary classics allow her to go beyond the narrow contingencies of today’s events, put things in perspective, and nourish compassion.

For Mathilde, Les Mis is a personal journey from sadness and anger to compassion. Compassion is in the ability to listen to one another, work together, and produce a work that is accessible to all.‘Will my grandmother get it?’ Mathilde asks herself when writing. She wants something accessible, not limited to regular theatre-goers. She wants to be open to others, wherever they come from culturally, socially, and, of course, politically. Some members of the production voted Leave.

‘It is our duty to be compassionate,’ says Mathilde, ‘to find strength in accepting defeat, not despair.’ It is compassion that allows to overcome division, to appreciate human complexity, and find strength in togetherness. Mathilde finds compassion in being supported by Chapter Arts Centre, in working together with actors, non-actors, and dance students, getting inspiration from all.

Mathilde, Matteo, and John tell me working together requires humility, respect, and trust. As John tells me, ‘you need to sense the time when to follow someone else’s lead, when to defend one’s position, and when to let go of it.’ You need to abandon the need to take control. This deeply collaborative and inclusive production of Les Mis is fruit of mutual trust and compassion. It is what the UK needs now.